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For the past few years, my husband Jonathan and I have been exploring the many footpaths to be found on the lower slopes above Vredehoek where Cape Town’s intense mountain fire in late April recently threatened homes on the urban edge.
In our almost daily forays, we have come to know this little corner of Table Mountain so well that we have invented nicknames for many of the places we pass by – and each tells a story.
There’s Cobra Corner where Jonathan and Scarlet the dog once rounded a corner to be confronted by a Cape cobra with its hood up – before it dropped to the ground and sailed off into the fynbos. The Banana Walk was so named because a kind fellow once offered me a banana when I was somewhat out of puff.
And Double Nest Dead End is a path that ends in a cul-de-sac – the scene of a mini tragedy for a pair of orange-breasted sunbirds whose two attempts at nesting failed here. One fledgling drowned in a violent late-winter storm while the other just disappeared – possibly the victim of a predator.
But more pertinent to the recent fire that swept across the slopes of Devil’s Peak recently, there’s the Talking Tree. It’s a blue gum with a dead pine resting against it, that creaks and groans when the wind blows – which it often does in this neck of the woods.
The Talking Tree can be found on a path above Deer Park in an area that is heavily infested with invasive alien vegetation. It was not always so, but since the last bad fire swept through in 2017, a forest of exotic Port Jackson seedlings sprang up even as the pines started to collapse due to fire damage. Also prolific here are huge, old gum trees planted in large stands in the mountain gulleys that, I gather, were originally intended to arrest the spread of fires. Well and good perhaps, but they tend to proliferate easily and, incidentally, have you ever seen much indigenous vegetation growing in a blue gum plantation?
As we learnt from the recent fire that started below Rhodes Memorial, big old pine trees and thick copices of other dense alien vegetation make for a dangerous combination, not least because they burn more intensely than the local fire-adapted fynbos. These sap-filled pine trees fast become the source of hot flying embers in high winds which then threaten nearby properties and cause the fire to literally jump and spread at a frightening speed.
The good news is that elsewhere on the slopes of Devil’s Peak there are still some good swathes of natural vegetation and much of this will recover. Since December 2019, through our very amateur botanising, we have recorded more than 200 species of plants for this area alone on iNaturalist – even with the lockdown interruptions to our daily walks.
Fynbos ecologists will tell you that fire is not a bad thing, indeed it is an important part of the natural cycle, but only as long as the veld doesn’t burn too often. So, in the aftermath of this fire, there are some areas that will benefit, and we will watch these with great interest as new life emerges in the months to come.
But there are other parts of these slopes that have been hammered by too frequent, intense fires that are now showing signs of erosion and degradation. Worryingly, in these degraded areas the risk of invasive alien vegetation taking root is highest.
After the last fire, and to counteract the rapid encroachment of Port Jackson and black wattle on the slopes behind his house in the neighbouring suburb of Highlands Estate, a friend organised regular alien-clearing parties on Sunday afternoons. Many neighbours pitched in and their efforts were rewarded when the slope they were working on recovered sufficiently for the indigenous blombos to put on a beautiful display. This slope was spared in the recent fire.
So, what’s the point of all this botanical musing? The bottom line is that we must act now to protect the biological integrity of our mountain. While the argument put forward for clearing aliens most often relates to their water-thirsty ways in the water scarce Western Cape, we must not lose sight of the role they play in the severe and damaging fires we have seen in the past few years and in the losses to the incredible diversity of our natural vegetation, and the risk to human life and property.
Climate scientists tell us that we are in for hotter, longer summers in the Western Cape which increases the fire risk. It’s time for us to put sentiment aside and for the Talking Tree and its cohorts to go. Perhaps that is what the Talking Tree has been trying to tell us all along.
Look out for WWF’s upcoming guide on how to clear invasive alien vegetation – it will be available in both English and Afrikaans. Landowners have a legal obligation to keep their properties clear of invasive alien vegetation, yet they often don’t know the best practice methods or how to maintain an effective alien clearing programme. This science-based guide will be freely available to support landowners in looking after their land and our special fynbos.
Learn more about the work WWF is doing in the water space, including tackling alien vegetation.